Are the challenges we engage to solve becoming too complex for our current methodologies? I believe that, in the last 50 years, we have lost sight of the exponential relationship between “problem complexity” and “problem management”.
I got to thinking about this once again while reading this intriguing article in The Atlantic: ‘Trust in Government is Collapsing Around the World‘. (Thanks to my well-educated friend, Ari, for pointing me to it.) Thinking in terms of “definition of experiments”, the number of independent variables is expanding like crazy, and the standard deviation in each variable is also increasing: bigger variety of people, more sub-cultures with power, higher expectations of government, etc.
Take a look at modern computing devices. Within this class I would include laptops, tablets, smart phones, and the like. They contain a powerful computing engine, plenty of memory and storage, access to the world of information we call the Internet, and claim to provide a platform on which any number of challenges can be addressed. Manage your money? No problem. Write anything from a note for the fridge to a doctoral thesis to a novel? No problem. Digest news feeds to something palatable for each user? Again, no problem.
But I would suggest that the software world has delegated the actual solving of the problem to the users, not the computer and its software. A word processor can do many things, but to do it bug-free requires legions of users writing in about this-and-that problem they encounter. Fix the problems one-by-one, and you end up with a solution to the problem. Wait! Haven’t we moved the problem from “how to write a manuscript on paper with pencil and then use a typewriter” to “how to diagnose or live with bugs when you want to get fancy”? Why not test the software and find all the bugs before it leaves the factory? That takes a different type of resolve, and using experts to create the final system, not the user community.
Uri Friedman writes ““we may not know how to architect trusted institutions at scale in public space,” quoting a former Department of Homeland Security official. She continues, “Our institutions—their weight-bearing effectiveness for social problems of enormous complexity is being called into question now across the board.”
The ‘public space’ has scaled dramatically with the shift to social media and away from ‘juried’ publications. Yet people are reading less. But why put these institutions in the public space at all? Apparently trusting direct democracy is not a new issue: according to Wikipedia, it was an issue for the Founding Fathers. Are we going to put “beta social policy” into the public sphere, and let the users find the bugs?
(I’m beginning to see S.T.E.M. efforts evolving to S.T.E.A.M. – including the arts and history. I predict this will be a “pendulum swing” like the one in 1958, when Sputnik caused American politicians to direct more effort to science and math. When the competitive crisis had passed, we went back to social studies.)
This article could go on and on. Parting thought: I wonder when our political and cultural system will begin to look a lot like ancient Athens? A ‘direct democracy’, as we learned in school, but it ignores the castes of slaves and non-citizens. (See Wikipedia article, paragraph #2.) I wonder how ‘direct democracy’ has changed in Vermont’s “town meetings” in recent decades.
Democracy: it’s still better than the alternatives!